By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 9, 2008
The police force in charge of protecting most federal buildings is understaffed, demoralized and poorly equipped, exposing facilities in the D.C. area and elsewhere "to a greater risk of crime or terrorist attack," according to a report issued yesterday.
The report, by the Government Accountability Office, blames many of the problems on a 20 percent decline in the workforce of the Federal Protective Service since 2004. The cutbacks have occurred because of budget problems that arose after the agency was absorbed into the Department of Homeland Security in 2003.
The report comes in the same week that the Interior Department released a study describing deteriorating conditions at the U.S. Park Police, an agency also beset by budget woes.
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) said she was disturbed by the reports and would push for congressional action.
"You see very different police forces coming up way short of what the public knows or expects," she said. Norton released the GAO report, which described preliminary results from an investigation, at a hearing yesterday of a public buildings subcommittee that she leads.
The leading Republican on that subcommittee, U.S. Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.), also said he was alarmed by the GAO report.
"Every major terrorist attack in this country has targeted a government owned building, yet six years after Sept. 11, it appears these buildings are less secure," he said in a statement. "How is it possible that the Department of Homeland Security has let this happen?"
Testifying at the hearing, Mark L. Goldstein of the GAO said the Federal Protective Service's workforce had shrunk from about 1,400 to 1,100 in three years. Those police officers oversee about 15,000 contract security guards assigned by the service to federal buildings. The guards are not allowed to make arrests.
The decline in the professional police force has led to fewer patrols around buildings, delays in responding to calls and inadequate oversight of security guards, Goldstein said. In one vacant building protected by the service, a body lay unnoticed for three months -- and was found by employees of another agency, Goldstein said.
Federal agencies "recognize the kind of protection they receive is deteriorating," he said.
Goldstein, who wrote the report, described an "incredible amount" of turnover at the Federal Protective Service because of low morale linked to the budget cutbacks. In the National Capital Region, the service has had five directors in a little more than a year, he said.
The staffing shortages were compounded by the service's problems buying and maintaining equipment, Goldstein said. At one major federal building, investigators found that only 11 of the 150 security cameras were working, making it difficult to investigate crimes, he said.
The protective service had about 5,000 federal officers after it was created in the 1970s. That number has declined, and the agency has relied more heavily on contract security guards at the nearly 9,000 buildings it protects across the country.
But many federal officers question the performance of the security guards, the GAO report says. In one case, the guards did nothing as a robber stole a trailer packed with more than $500,000 worth of surveillance equipment from outside a federal law enforcement agency -- even though the incident was captured on a security camera, Goldstein said.
He declined to identify where any of the incidents he mentioned occurred.
Gary Schenkel, who became director of the Federal Protective Service last year, did not dispute the report, but he said it "glossed over the positive things that FPS has been able to accomplish in this past year."
The service is trying to reduce some of its more routine police functions and focus its officers on supervising the contract guards and drawing up building security plans. Schenkel said that change would improve coordination with the security guards.
"They are the external eyes and ears and weapons" for the federal officers, Schenkel said.
He said that the service intends to hire about 25 inspectors this year and 50 to 100 in 2009. The service is also planning a national program to lease security cameras with maintenance contracts, he said.
Schenkel has said that local police can sometimes fill in for federal officers when staffing is strained. But the GAO report says that many local officers were unaware of that new role. The report also says that responsibility might be difficult because of liability issues.